Why the Singularity isn't going to happen

I don't believe in the Singularity for the same reason I don't believe in Heaven.

Once I met a Singularity zealot who claimed that eating potato chips after the Singularity would induce sublime ecstasy. Our senses would be so heightened that we could completely focus our whole attention on the ultimate chippiness of the chip. For him, the Singularity was just like Sunday school Heaven, full of turbo versions of everything we love down here on Earth. But instead of an all-powerful God zotting angel puppies into existence for our pleasure, we would be using the supposed tools of the Singularity like nanotech and A.I. to conjure up the tastiest junk food ever.

Why the Singularity isn't going to happen

That is not a vision of social progress; it is, in fact, a complete failure to imagine how technology might change society in the future.
Though it's easy to parody the poor guy who talked about potato chips after the Singularity, his faith is emblematic of Singulatarian beliefs. Many scientifically-minded people believe the Singularity is a time in the future when human civilization will be completely transformed by technologies, specifically A.I. and machines that can control matter at an atomic level (for a full definition of what I mean by the Singularity, read my backgrounder on it). The problem with this idea is that it's a completely unrealistic view of how technology changes everyday life.

Case in point: Penicillin. Discovered because of advances in biology, and refined through advances in biotechnology, this drug cured many diseases that had been killing people for centuries. It was in every sense of the term a Singularity-level technology. It extended life, and revolutionized medical treatment. And yet in the long term, it wound up leaving us just as vulnerable to disease. Bacteria mutated, creating nastier infections than we've ever seen before. Now we're turning to pro-biotics rather than anti-biotics; we're investigating gene therapies to surmount the troubles we've created by massively deploying penicillin and its derivatives.

Why the Singularity isn't going to happen

That is how Singularity-level technologies work in real life. They solve dire problems, sure. They save lives. But they also create problems we'd never imagined - problems that might have been inconceivable before that Singularity tech was invented.

What I'm saying is that the potato chip won't taste better after the Singularity because the future isn't the present on steroids. The future is a mutated bacteria that you never saw coming.

In Heaven, everything is fine. In the future, not so much.
After the Singularity, humans will supposedly live for a very long time, if not forever. And we will build spaceships using nanobots that assemble it from carbon atoms on up. I am always suspicious of predictions that sound like religious myths. I'm not opposed to religion - it's fine with me if you want to believe in God or dharma - but I am opposed to basing visions of tomorrow on fantasies from the past rather than what we can glean from factual accounts of history.

For previous generations, the machines of industrial mass production and the huge dynamos that generated electricity were Singularity-level technology. Humans could accomplish tasks that were simply impossible a hundred years before. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pamphlets were full of predictions about how humans had entered a new age of leisure, and things were only going to get more leisurely from there. Sort of the way potato chips are only going to get tastier.

Why the Singularity isn't going to happen

What people of the industrial age didn't bargain on - didn't even know about - were all the ways that byproducts of industry would destroy the environment. And I don't just mean in a save-the-Earth kind of way: I mean that when Friedrich Engels walked through industrial Manchester in the mid-nineteenth century he was completely blindsided by how destroyed people's lives were by pollution and life in cities built around factories. In response, he wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England, a document that would have stunned reformers fifty years earlier, many of whom believed that industrialization would solve every social problem and remove the burden of physical labor from the shoulders of even the poorest people.

There's no denying that industrialization laid the foundations for a better, more productive society. It has led to countless innovations, and has improved the lives of many working people. But it also destroys life in ways that Adam Smith and Eli Whitney could never have imagined. It has transformed our entire planet, from its ecosystems to its atmosphere and beyond. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that we do not live on the same planet that people lived on in 1750. The environment - from megacities to airborne particles and space junk - has changed that much.

Why the Singularity isn't going to happen

Singularity-level technology changes the world to the point where the things our ancestors wanted are not the same things we want. Today, we are trying to roll back the effects of industrialization. We are trying to undo the damage that penicillin did. If history, real history, teaches us any lesson it's that new technologies do not cause us to transcend. They fix some things, and then cause new problems we hadn't anticipated.

It's not that we couldn't anticipate these problems, and even generate some Plan B ideas for dealing with them. But it's hard to plan for problems when our eyes are on Heaven - that place where finally, all our problems are solved and we live happily ever after. It's a fantasy as old as recorded history, and unlike history, it never changes. Yet we still keep mistaking it for a perfect vision of the future. Each time a Singularity-level technology comes along, we pack our bags for paradise instead of thinking sensibly about how we can prevent the worst side-effects of this new technology from biting us in our angelic asses.

That's right - things are never going to be perfect.
If you do live forever, it will only be by turning into a creature so unlike you that "living forever" won't mean the same thing anymore. And so what if you can control atoms when your giant spaceships keep getting subatomic particle infections that you can't contain? Unless you plug your brain into a bliss program, you're going to have to deal with all that evidence from history that culture-changing inventions don't ever behave the way you expect them to. And, by the way, neither does culture.

Why the Singularity isn't going to happen

All I'm saying is that if you're looking for a narrative that explains the future, consider this: Does the narrative promise you things that sound like religion? A world where today's problems are fixed, but no new problems have arisen? A world where human history is irrelevant? If yes, then you're in the fog of Singularity thinking.

But if that narrative deals with consequences, complications, and many possible outcomes, then you're getting closer to something like a potential truth. It may not be as tasty as potato chips, but it's what we've got. Might as well get ready for the mutation to begin.